- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

The literary master Henry James had his “fruitless fidget of composition.” I have a similar, if more thoroughly modern, malady. It’s a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it was brought on by a device I tried in vain to fend off: the IPod. “It’s not a bona fide musical upgrade, a la vinyl to CD,” I would tell myself. “It’s a glorified filing cabinet.”

Needless to say, I caved.

First came the Nano, a sort of IPod for the musical coupon clipper. It can hold up to 500 songs, which, for normal folks who just love how unobtrusively lightweight the IPod feels on the treadmill or jogging path, is plenty of tunes.

But for me? Are you kidding? Five hundred barely covers my Rolling Stones.

So, I upgraded to the big kahuna — the 80-gigabyte beast that stores up to 20,000 songs.

Great. Just one problem: The audio transfer from CD to computer hard drive. The process that Apple chief Steve Jobs romantically refers to as “ripping.”

This is where musical OCD kicks in.

Ripping sounds so quick and easy. The word has an onomatopoeic ring to it that suggests it’s as effortless as tearing through a sheet of paper. But what happens when you’re staring at reams of paper? These can’t be ripped. They can only be bludgeoned.

With 1,000-plus CDs that I’d ideally like to upload — because you can’t let all those free gigabytes starve, not with so many of the world’s poor children starving for gigabytes — the process of ripping, in short order, became an object of dread and crippling self-doubt. Unripped CDs now taunt me in their unripped-ness. I can almost hear them, in their half-broken jewel cases and water-stained leaflets, in their state of 20th-century plastic inertness, laugh at me.

Initially, I set about going row by row through the collection. Then I realized how silly — no, how blasphemous — this was. Even as I was aware that, eventually, everything will fit, I had to properly honor my collection by assigning an upload hierarchy. I could not very well begin with Time-Life’s “AM Gold” series and simply “get around to” the Beatles.

Yet even this very sensible decision became fraught with complication. Of course, all the studio albums had to be ripped in their entirety, plus both volumes of “Past Masters” — even the “Yellow Submarine” soundtrack, which has a total of two songs that I actually ever listen to (“All Together Now” and “Hey Bulldog”).

But what about all the “Anthology” stuff? Will I one day feel the irresistible urge to listen to, say, the false-starts version “One After 909”?

Now that I’ve ripped through the entire Led Zeppelin catalog, I find myself with fully three live versions of “Dazed and Confused,” one of which tops 25 minutes.

To just blithely go about uploading such (let’s be honest) duplicative or marginal recordings inevitably brings on a feeling of gluttony. Yet the compulsion cannot be beaten back. What kind of music fan would I be if I got scrimpy with the Allman Brothers Band at its peak? Oh, yes, I need “Mountain Jam” — all 33 minutes of it.

However, this sense of gluttony is quickly canceled out by another symptom of musical OCD. It is the counterpoint to IPod gluttony. Like “Seinfeld’s” Elaine, who callously weeded out potential lovers based on a short supply of her favorite form of birth control, the discerning IPod owner must draw a line of IPod worthiness.

Proud completist though I am, I’ve had to compromise. I won’t lie. These were quite painful compromises.

The rub came most often with bonus tracks. I decided, after long meditations on the question, that these could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. For example: I could do without Elvis Costello singing “My Funny Valentine” (an extra track on the “Armed Forces” reissue), but, without hesitation, ripped the Byrds’ “Triad,” which was left off of the original “Notorious Byrd Brothers” less because of creative choice than because Roger McGuinn could no longer stand David Crosby. In the latter case, I felt downright gallant — as though I was righting one of the gravest injustices in the history of album sequencing.

This has proved one of the rare upsides of musical OCD. The worst part — the one that you, reader, will probably find most shocking — is a self-imposed rule that I can properly explain only by way of family history. I come from a line of hardened race track habitues who passed on to me the edict that you may not eat until you cash a winning ticket. In the context of audio uploading, this has translated into what is, as of this writing, a pristinely empty 80-gigabyte IPod. It will remain so until my CD collection has been ripped to my satisfaction.

Sad, isn’t it?

Every time I watch, with that sense of gratification known only to the unhinged collector, that little sands-in-the-hourglass bar that says “Importing” such-and-such song, and thereby convert all that magic into raw data, I deprive myself of music’s greatest pleasure — which is listening to it.

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